In the annals of Americans playing abroad, Danny Karbassiyoon occupies an utterly unique niche.
Karbassiyoon was serendipitously discovered by Arsenal at an American camp, scored a goal on his first team debut in 2004 and became a full time U.S.-based scout for the club by his 24th birthday. In his new book The Arsenal Yankee, Karbassiyoon details his journey from suburban Virginia to sharing a locker room with Thierry Henry and Robin Van Persie.
Karbassiyoon spent eight years in the U.S. scouting for Arsenal full time and now lives in London scouting games in the UK. TopDrawerSoccer.com recently chatted with the American about his new book, his thoughts on the state of American scouting, how he unearthed American prospect Gedion Zelalem, and why he opted not to pass to Robin Van Persie one fateful night in 2004.
What prompted you to write a book on your experiences so far?
“When I moved home from the UK as a 22-year-old after I essentially made the decision to retire, I was hired by Arsenal to scout the U.S. I got a lot of questions about what it was like playing with the Invincibles, what was it like training on a daily basis in London, being away from home. A bunch of questions that I probably had myself before I went on trial at Arsenal. They were kind of these questions that I found myself fielding regularly from coaches, parents, players, family friends, everybody.
“And I thought to myself, it’s funny, by no means did I mind answering the questions, but I found myself getting the same ones asked over and over. And I said that if this is something that kind of became something that’s routine for me for four years in my time as a pro, that maybe it’s not kind of out there for everyone else.
“I also took the angle in the book that anything’s possible. If a kid from Roanoke, Virginia can end up playing alongside Thierry Henry and training with a team such as the Invincibles, really anything’s possible. So it was kind of a mix of not only just kind of providing information that I found really interesting and intriguing in my time as a pro, but also the motivational side for kids all over the country or all over the world that, if you set your dreams high enough and work for them then anything’s actually possible.”
You obviously have a pretty unique story. How did Arsenal find you, initially?
“I got seen at ESP Camp, which is now no longer a thing. I was waitlisted for the camp initially, and I was going into my senior year. Maybe the younger generation of soccer players in the States wouldn’t know this, but it was the camp to get invited to to get seen by college coaches. It was the place you wanted to be if you were a competitive soccer player in America in high school.
“I think several weeks before the camp started I got a letter from adidas saying I was waitlisted. It was massively gut-wrenching. It was just a huge blow. I had been playing really well that year, and I had really anticipated getting into this camp based on the feedback I was getting. I got waitlisted.
“About a day before the camp started, I got a phone call. I was out in my back yard pounding a ball against our brick wall, which I did on a daily basis. My phone rang and it was adidas asking if I could make it down to Wilmington, North Carolina the following day for camp because somebody had dropped out. I called my dad and asked if he could drive me down to Wilmington. I was lucky in that regard because it’s not close, but it’s a drivable distance and it’s on the same coast.
“We drove down to Wilmington, and I got assigned to two coaches who happened to be former Arsenal guys. I impressed them enough the first day or two to where they ended up calling the chief scout of Arsenal. He came out the following day and watched me for the rest of the week. And I ended up getting invited over there on trial after the camp ended.”
Can you walk me through the goal you scored for Arsenal against Manchester City? I’m sure you’re asked about it all the time.
“It was a super special moment. Definitely one that I’ll never forget. I kind of told people this the last couple weeks, but my dreams were kind of getting one-upped one after the other that night in terms of making the traveling team, being in the squad for Arsenal in a first team fixture, walking in the dressing room and actually seeing my name on the back of a jersey that I hadn’t bought at EuroSport. Then getting to come on as a sub in the 82nd minute and actually making my debut was a goal that I’d set for myself the moment I signed at the club. And then getting the chance to get on the end of a Cesc Fabregas pass and actually score.
“The game was really open at that time when I did come on. We were winning 1-0, and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie got the ball on the right-hand side and broke, and as I mentioned there was kind of space all over the place just because of how late it was in the game. (Manchester) City were pushing for an equalizer. I just kind of made my way forward on the opposite side of the pitch.
“The ball ended up coming to Cesc in the middle about 20 yards out. He casually and comfortably as a 17-year-old can, dribbled across the box and waited and waited. Danny Mills was marking me at the time, and I’d learned a lot at Arsenal up until that point. I’d been there about a year, just under a year and a half, and the off-the-ball movement portion of my education had gone up massively. Not that I hadn’t learned much about it growing up in the States, but I had relied on other things unfortunately to get past defenders, whether it be speed or strength or just kind of technical ability. And at this level a lot more was required.
“I kind of dragged Danny Mills out of position, he finally took the bait and Cesc played the ball in behind, a perfectly weighted ball in behind. I took a touch and (Robin) Van Persie was open in the middle. But I thought to myself, he’s already scored, and I’ve got a great look at goal. I’m left-footed and I was very confident. I took a shot and ended up scoring.”
You spent a lot of time scouting in the U.S. for Arsenal. What are some of your takeaways from that experience?
“I scouted in the States full time for about eight years. It was a very interesting time of my life in terms of how to be alerted to players, how to find players, what to look for in players. There was a giant learning curve. Just because I was 23 and had played professionally when Arsenal called didn’t necessarily mean that I would be the best of scouts.
“Initially at the time I flew back over the London and did kind of like a two or three week course of just following all of the Arsenal scouts around London and England, the chief scout at Premiership games, cup games, youth level, everything. Just learning how to watch the game as a scout, learning how to write reports the way Arsenal wanted us to write reports.
“It was interesting. I had to build a giant network in the States of guys that I trusted, contacts that I trusted in all nooks and crannies. As a scout, it’s very important to kind of rely on that network. You can only be in one place at one time anyway, but you can’t really afford to fly all over the country wasting your time every single weekend. I learned how to watch the game in a very new way at that time.
“It was all based off of, every once in a while they would call me and tell me, you need to go watch this player, we’ve been told about this player, you need to go check him out. And those would generally be based off of like, agent recommendations that had connections at the club that may have known somebody that could kind of get the word to the scouting department. But for the most part it was me relying on my network and doing a lot of legwork on my own to ensure I knew who the best young players in MLS and the best kind of young players in the country were.”
How much do Premier League scouts look at MLS and its players these days? Is that a pipeline we could see being used more in the future?
“They definitely do watch MLS. I think the stereotype that American soccer is behind is starting to fizzle slowly. There still are stereotypes, but it’s starting to die off slowly. With the U.S. doing well at World Cups and impressing, and players from the U.S. coming to England, coming to Germany, coming to France and doing really well, I think top clubs can set aside their pride or whatever they need to set aside to look at any market in the world.
“They don’t need to brush aside the U.S. anymore. As long as there’s players that can influence or improve a team, I think scouts more and more will start watching MLS. I’m fully aware of clubs that have been watching players in MLS for years. You’ve seen guys like Matt Miazga this season in particular signing for Chelsea. It’s definitely a market clubs are aware of.”
Based on what you’ve seen, what’s your take on the general state of American scouting, both for the U.S. national teams and within individual MLS clubs?
“I would say over the past decade it’s drastically improved. Especially in terms of the youth national teams. ODP was in full effect when I was growing up. To me it was a very broken system in that, if you had a bad weekend you had to wait a year for the cycle to start over essentially. Then you had to make the state team, and then you had to make the regional pool for the regional team.
“Whereas now, it’s essentially based off how you’re doing with your club team as long as you’re in kind of a competitive part of the country, and geographically we’ll always have issues with regards to scouting. But as long as you’re in kind of a competitive part of the country, there are people watching. There’s national training centers held often that are led by (U.S. Soccer) federation coaches and scouts. And the ability and opportunity to get seen by a national team employee at any given time is far higher than it was even when I was playing and coming up.
“With regards to MLS scouts, I am very lucky to work for one of the biggest clubs in the world that has a huge emphasis on their scouting network, as many people know with Arsenal. I was able to kind of dictate my own schedule and go wherever I needed to go as long as I knew it wouldn’t be a waste of my time. Unfortunately in scouting, 99 percent of your trips are - not a waste of time because you don’t know if you don’t go to watch the game - but you’re not signing out of every trip, for sure.
“The only players that I signed in the U.S. over those eight years were Joel Campbell and Gedion Zelalem. Two players in eight years, it’s not horrendous for Arsenal, but you’re not signing a player every trip you go on.
“With regards to MLS, I think unfortunately the monetary constraints of the teams restrict them to an extent. A lot of the times I would see a lot of teams at the same events together all kind of watching the same players they’d been told about by an agent back home. I know you have to be running a very stable basis in order to give somebody free will go to find players all over the world as well.
“At times I felt bad as well, because a lot of these guys (in MLS) would find players that they weren’t able to compete for on a salary point with. They’d go in saying that we can spend X amount of money on a left winger. They’d find a left winger, but they’d find out that clubs like Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester City were looking at the same player and they’d say, OK, well we’re not going to win this battle, so we might as well pack our bags and go home.
“It was good to see those scouts out on the road, and I’m glad that MLS clubs are starting to kind of focus more on finding players, not only in the U.S. but in Central America, South America and other regions. But at the same time, I’m in close contact with a lot of the scouts in MLS. They’ll send me messages saying hey man, we’re looking for this and we’re able to pay X amount of money, can you keep your eyes open. And they’ll define a player, and I’m like, you want Messi for just under $100,000 a year?
“It’s unfair to them, and I understand it, but they’re trying to do their jobs as well. It’s a bit of a tough one there.”
You found Gedion Zelalem for Arsenal. How did all of that go down? When did you first find him? Was it at the Dallas Cup?
“No actually. I’m not really sure where that whole story surfaced from. It’s certainly snowballed fast, that one. But I saw Gedion in January of that year (2013) just at a training session playing for his club team in Olney just outside of D.C. I watched him play there probably at three training sessions initially, and I saw him play in probably three games after that. We actually ended up bringing him down to Richmond. At the time I had just moved down to Richmond, so we brought him down to guest play with the Richmond Strikers in a tournament just so I could see him again.
“Then, I essentially decided that I was going to bring him over on trial before Dallas Cup just because I knew that when he went to Dallas Cup other clubs were going to be there. So I wanted to ensure that we would kind of have something locked in by then. My relationship with the family was strong enough that they understood that this was something real, and it wasn’t just some random 26-year-old guy saying he was associated with Arsenal and trying to get their kid to move to London.
“Luckily Arsenal’s 18s that year were in Dallas Cup, so several of our staff members came over as well. So Steve Morrow, who’s head of youth scouting now, he was there. Steve Bould, who’s our assistant manager, he was there, he was the head of the 18s at the time. Neil Banfield is a first team coach as well, and he was there.
“So it was a good opportunity to kind of reiterate in front of them and show them this kid is very, very good and I’m bringing him over in a couple weeks. Kind of to get that satisfaction of having them say wow, yeah, he’s done well. And they kind of said, what are you doing to do with him Danny? And I told them I’d already recommended him and we’re setting up a trial. It’s happening. So that all happened, he went over and did very well, and when he was old enough he was able to sign a contract.”
In terms of what Arsenal does, what do you think Arsenal has to teach American clubs just about how it goes about identifying players and how it looks to bring them into the fold?
“Anybody that knows football knows Arsenal play a pretty distinctive brand of it. And Arsene Wenger in particular has preached a specific brand of football since he took over in the late 90’s. At the end of the day those are the players the scouts know they have to look for. Those are the types of players we know will come in and improve our team as well.
“I love it, because having played for the boss and having played for the club, especially at a very special time when his style of play was more apparent than ever, it’s nice to be able to continue that legacy by going out and looking for players that fit that mold. I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone either. Different clubs play different styles of football. After two years of playing at Arsenal myself, I went to Burnley, which is a very different mentality of how they approach the game, especially then. It was hard for me to kind of adapt to life in the Championship, life in the club, life for a manager who was very direct and kind of the polar opposite of what I was accustomed to.
“As a scout, it’s fun for me because I love the brand that Arsenal play. I know the standard that they’re looking for and I know what we need to get to improve our team. That’s what I go out to look for.”